Since the Roman Empire “fell” in the 5th Century C.E., it has exerted a powerful hold on the imaginations of those who have come after, and perhaps this is more true for the 20th and 21st Centuries than any other time period. Although the epic films are perhaps the most famous examples, there have also been a number of outstanding series written that detail the fascinating world in which the Romans lived. The following series are and books are some of the best that have been written about this fascinating civilization.
The Masters of Rome
This sprawling series, written by the incredibly capable and meticulous Colleen McCullough, depicts the last days of the Roman Republic and the dawning of the Roman Empire under the reign of the Emperor Augustus. With incredible detail, McCullough manages to bring the world of the ancient Romans to startling life, with such forcefulness that we actually feel like we’re there watching the exploits of such great names as Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and the many men and women that occupied this particularly powerful moment in Roman history.
Gordius the Finder
This series, written as a succession of mysteries, might best be described as a combination of Agatha Christie and historical fiction. Taking place in the same time period as “The Masters of Rome,” this series is remarkable not only for its detailed depiction of Roman life but also its protagonist, a witty and often sarcastic private detective named Gordius. Although the series does have its darker moments, it is nevertheless more light-hearted than a great deal of historical fiction set in the Roman Republic/Roman Empire.
I, Claudius and Claudius the God
No two books better capture the bitter political and dynastic rivalries that plagued the Julio-Claudian dynasty than this duology written by the renowned author Robert Graces. Told from the perspective of the under-appreciated and derided Claudius, the novel traces his movement from ugly duckling to eventual emperor after the death of his relative Caligula. At times both moving and disturbing, this novel ably depicts the bloodshed and violence that accompanied the reigns of the emperors Augustus, TIberius, Caligula, and Claudius. By the end, we sympathize with Claudius and wonder how he could ever have made it with such a family.
This relatively recent novel, written by the able Michelle Moran, tells the story of Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra VII of Egypt and her husband Marc Antony. It is a profoundly moving tale, as we follow the young woman as she attempts to make her way through the deadly rapids and political tides that swirl around Rome’s first imperial family. This is a definite must-read for anyone who is interested in this often-unappreciated and unknown daughter of one of history’s most famous women.
All of these books are excellent ways to spend an afternoon, or several afternoons for the longer series. If you’re at all interested in the world of ancient Rome, then you’ll be sure to get a lot of pleasure out of these fascinating books.